Now Governor Northam is expected to sign the bill. A bill to ban the death penalty passed the General Assembly
Now Governor Northam is expected to sign the bill.

With Monday’s vote, Virginia becomes the 23rd state and first in the South to repeal the death penalty.

RICHMOND – A bill to ban the death penalty in Virginia passed the General Assembly on Monday. Now, it goes to the governor’s desk for his signature. 

The bill removes references to the death penalty from the Virginia Code. Instead of the death penalty, people convicted of capital murder in Virginia will face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Death Penalty Repeal Changes Lives

As soon as the governor signs the bill, it’ll immediately change the lives of two people. Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter are currently sitting on death row. Their sentences will change to life in prison. 

On Oct. 28, 2005, Porter went with a friend to buy marijuana at a Norfolk apartment complex. The dealer didn’t have any, however, causing Porter to get mad. According to Virginia Supreme Court case filings, Porter pulled out a gun and locked the door. His friend panicked and called police.

When Norfolk Police Officer Stanley Reaves arrived, Porter shot and killed him, the court records say. He was later sentenced to death in Norfolk Circuit Court.

The court system convicted Anthony Juniper, meanwhile, for multiple murders. On Jan. 16, 2004, he went to his ex-girlfriend’s house in Norfolk to pick up some things after their recent split.

Neighbors heard Juniper and his ex, Keisha Stephens, arguing, then several loud “booms”, court documents say. When police arrived, they found Stephens dead, along with her two daughters and her brother. Stephens’ daughter Nykia was 4 and Shearyia was 2.

Officers testified that the door to Stephens’ apartment had been forced open. She had been stabbed and then shot. The other three victims had all been shot.

A knife left at the scene had Juniper’s DNA on it, along with a cigarette butt near the door. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Eligibility for Parole

Under the bill before the governor, people sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. 

However, people judges rule guilty of crimes previously eligible for the death penalty won’t necessarily receive life in prison. That detail was the source of debate on the Senate floor.  Some senators argued those with capital murder convictions don’t deserve the possibility of a lesser sentence. 

Only people with capital murder convictions are currently eligible for the death penalty in Virginia. These crimes include the premeditated killing of another person for hire, in the commission of a robbery, and in the commission of an abduction, among other offenses. 

“We must give comfort to the citizens, the public, to know that if someone commits a heinous crime, a crime of special circumstances, crime that shocks the conscious and falls within those special circumstances currently in the law with regards to what qualifies as a death penalty offense, that those people are not going to see the light of day,” said Sen. Richard Stuart (R – Stafford). “That they will not see liberty again because the person or persons that they killed will not see liberty again.”

No New Mandatory Minimum Sentences

However, one of the patrons of legislation to ban the death penalty, Sen. Scott Surovell (D – Eastern Fairfax), points out this would effectively create 14 new mandatory minimum sentences in the Virginia Code.

“They do remove the victim’s voice from the conversation because the victim doesn’t get to have a say in the sentence either,” Surovell said. “”It’s awfully presumptuous of us to just decide that these 14 situations deserve this one and only punishment. We need to keep our discretion in our system.”

According to the Sentencing Project, more than 200,000 people in the US are currently serving life sentences. That’s one in every seven prisoners. Of the people serving life sentences, two thirds are people of color. And one in five Black men in prison are serving sentences for life. 

What’s Next

House Bill 2263, introduced by Del. Michael Mullin (D – Newport News), will become law once Governor Ralph Northam signs it. He’s expected to approve the bill, because abolishing the death penalty was one of Northam’s promises in this year’s State of the Commonwealth Address. 

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane,” said Northam.

When it’s signed, Virginia will become the first state in the South to abolish capital punishment.